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The Government of Desire

A Genealogy of the Liberal Subject

Liberalism, Miguel de Beistegui argues in The Government of Desire, is best described as a technique of government directed towards the self, with desire as its central mechanism. Whether as economic interest, sexual drive, or the basic longing for recognition, desire is accepted as a core component of our modern self-identities, and something we ought to cultivate. But this has not been true in all times and all places. For centuries, as far back as late antiquity and early Christianity, philosophers believed that desire was an impulse that needed to be suppressed in order for the good life, whether personal or collective, ethical or political, to flourish. Though we now take it for granted, desire as a constitutive dimension of human nature and a positive force required a radical transformation, which coincided with the emergence of liberalism.

By critically exploring Foucault’s claim that Western civilization is a civilization of desire, de Beistegui crafts a provocative and original genealogy of this shift in thinking. He shows how the relationship betweenidentity, desire, and government has been harnessed and transformed in the modern world, shaping our relations with others and ourselves, and establishing desire as an essential driving force for the constitution of a new and better social order. But is it? The Government of Desire argues that this is precisely what a contemporary politics of resistance must seek to overcome. By questioning the supposed universality of a politics based on recognition and the economic satisfaction of desire, de Beistegui raises the crucial question of how we can manage to be less governed today, and explores contemporary forms of counter-conduct.

​Drawing on a host of thinkers from philosophy, political theory, and psychoanalysis, and concluding with a call for a sovereign and anarchic form of desire, The Government of Desire is a groundbreaking account of our freedom and unfreedom, of what makes us both governed and ungovernable.

Author Information

Miguel de Beistegui is professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick. His most recent books include Proust as Philosopher: The Art of Metaphor and Aesthetics after Metaphysics: From Mimesis to Metaphor.

Reviews

The Government of Desire is a challenging, original, and convincing attempt to address the crucial question of the forms taken by contemporary liberal and neoliberal governmentality, and of their capacity to produce and exploit subjects of desire. This fascinating book shouldbecome a fundamental reference for both students and scholars, not only in relation to Foucault studies, but more broadly within the fields of political and social philosophy.”
— Daniele Lorenzini, Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought

“Miguel de Beistegui contributes to what Foucault called a history of the present by pursuing the idea of desire across three categories: economic, sexual, and symbolic. By interweaving the historical and theoretical aspects of these together, he argues that desire is not a transcendental feature of subjectivity, but rather an ‘assemblage’ of knowledge and power. Bolstered by a remarkable amount of research, The Government of Desire is a compelling, persuasive, and original work of philosophy.”
— Leonard Lawlor, Pennsylvania State University

Miguel de Beistegui attempts here what Foucault called a "critical ontology of ourselves." His point of departure is examining the way we lead our lives as desiring subjects in the economic, sexual, and "symbolic" realms. . . . Rather than being a commentary on what Foucault says, this book takes its lead from what he says but pushes it further, finding unexpected connections and new avenues of thought and practice. Beistegui looks to archival sources such as court transcripts and government documents, as well as to philosophers. He aims to denaturalize desire, to trace the ways we have been led to lead our lives as desiring subjects, and in so doing to allow "resistance" or "refusal" to our being so governed, freeing space for experimentation with other ways of living our lives. . . .The book is a fascinating work of philosophical interest, historical depth, and contemporary relevance.
— Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

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